The King Range Wilderness Area, known as the Lost Coast, is a rugged and unspoiled stretch of Northern California’s coastline. Too challenging to build here, the Pacific Coast Highway had to turn inland leaving this remote wilderness area as one of the least developed stretches in the pacific northwest.
The few roads in the area are windy and slow. We parked our truck at Black Sands Beach which is the south end of the 25 mile hike, and booked a shuttle to Mattole Beach at the north end. It took about 2 hours in the shuttle to get from one end to the other, using an amazingly indirect route. It took us three full days and three nights by foot to hike back to our truck.
After meeting our shuttle and making the long drive back north and unloading, we got to the beach and made a quick lunch. We started hiking around 4 pm, and stopped at any tide pools we saw along the way.
A few hours later we arrived at the Punta Gorda Lighthouse, which operated from 1912 to 1951, when it was decommissioned due to its remoteness. It was the “Alcatraz of Lighthouses.”
There is an elephant seal colony camped out on the beach near the lighthouse. Hunted to the brink of extinction, thankfully they are making a comeback.
We walked through the colony, trying not to attract too much attention. They noticed us though, and they all turned to look at us, which was pretty intimidating. They also grunted at us and made it clear we were not to get too close, not that we were planning to!
They lay all together in big blubbery lumps, with big shiny black doll eyes, but I’m sure they could take us, no problem. Elephant seals are big! The males are 3,000 to 5,000 pounds.
The hiking was mostly on the beach, which was slow and challenging because we were walking over soft sand or hard rocks varying in size from pebbles to big boulders.
The worst was football size. The rocks moved and shifted under our feet, so every step involved planning and hope. At least navigation was easy, since we were hiking on the coast. As long as we kept the ocean on our right, we couldn’t get lost.
The rugged mountains and cliffs next to the beach have rivers flowing down valleys every mile or two. This made finding water easy, though we did have to filter it. It tasted great for the most part, but in an area where there was evidence of wildfires, the water tasted smoky.
We saw several river otters swimming in the ocean. Our best sighting was one that just caught a huge fish that was flopping around struggling to escape at the surface. We followed it a little ways until there were some rocks offshore, and the otter brought the fish up on a rock to eat it. We were jealous of his dinner, but he didn’t look like he wanted to share.
We got a later start than expected, and were far too easily distracted from hiking by seals and tide pools and all the pretty, so we didn’t make it as far as we planned on the first day.
Fortunately, we could camp at most of the creeks, and we found a site as the sun was setting. Camping is allowed just about anywhere accessible above the tide line, and it’s recommended to camp in existing campsites if possible to minimize impact. Campsites are recognized by fire pits made from stones.
Our site on Willow Creek was beautiful, and even better because we were the only ones around. We didn’t sleep very well the first night. Our tent and sleeping bags and pads are pretty comfortable, but it was unfamiliar. And even though the actual ocean is the world’s best sound machine, it was pretty loud! Our tent might look small, but it is actually the 3-person tent. We were glad to have the “extra space,” but highly doubt we could squeeze a friend in the middle.
We woke up early the next day, to time the tides. The early low tides of the day were the lowest of the month, around -1.7 feet, which meant we could explore one of Brian’s top five things, tide pools!
We saw green anemone, ochre sea stars, crabs, gumboot chiton, purple urchins, mussels, and kelp. We explored tide pools each day during low tides, and that made Brian very happy.
We were lucky to have really low tides, but that meant we also had really high tides. There are two four mile stretches and one short stretch that are impassable at high tide, so it was important to time the hiking with the tides. We made it halfway through the first four mile stretch when we decided that we didn’t want to risk making it through the next two miles before the tide got too high, so we tucked in next to Cooksie Creek and set up our tent and took a nap, cooked lunch, and had a driftwood fire. We ended up there for 6 hours before the tide was low enough that we wanted to start again.
It seemed like an inconvenience but it turned out to be a nice break. When the tide lowered, we finished the two miles of beach, and then were able to hike on flat firm ground for a little while! Less than a third of the trail can be done over land on the cliffs near the beach, which goes through some flat areas between the more mountainous regions. Our feet and legs were thankful for a break from loose sand and rocks.
The wildflowers were blooming in the Spanish Flat area, and we walked through big fields of them so dense we could barely see the trail.
The second night we camped at Oat Creek, and again we were the only people around. We slept better that night, and slept in a bit in the morning, and then went out to see the tide pools at low tide. Each day low tide was a little later than the day before.
The next day we hiked through a bit more flat inland trail, and sand and rocks on the beach. The nice things about the beach hiking was that the terrain changed frequently, so when sand or small rocks or big rocks got annoying, it would change to something else. I thought the sand would be bad, but after the rocks I was always happy to see sand.
The last mile of the day’s hiking was pretty hard, over the worst size of rocks, and we were tired when we made it to Shipman Creek around sunset to camp for the night. There were four other couples there, but there were enough campsites for us to stay, which was great because I don’t think I could’ve gone another mile to the next creek at that point!
It was the clearest night of the trip, and all the stars were out.
On the last day we had about 7 miles to go. The first three were hiking out of the area that was impassable at high tide, and the last four we were told by a ranger would be difficult beach hiking. The first two of the last four were very difficult, with some of the most annoying rocky sections.
Our feet were dying and this part felt long in the hot sun. We took a nice break after and took off our boots and stretched out our feet, and started the last two miles all hopped up on Snickers that we were saving for the last day. The last two miles were pleasant (but still challenging) sandy beach walking, over the black sand on the appropriately named Black Sands Beach.
There was so much to see walking on the coast. There were urchins, huge mussels, abalone shells, crabs, and kelp, and other sea stuff washed up on the beach. Beach combing is not allowed, so everything was in much greater numbers than we had ever seen. We saw whale bones and a seabird snacking on a dead octopus. As we were finishing the trail we saw a pair of whales swimming along the coast.
Brian tested the Bullwhip kelp to see if it lived up to its name, and it did.
We started our hike on May 15, which is the first day of the high season (May 15 – September 15), where they issue 60 permits a day instead of 30. Which is probably why we were able to get a permit about 3 weeks ahead of time. We lucked out on the weather, it was cool and cloudy for the first two days and sunny for the third and fourth days. The cool weather was better for hiking, we got a tad sunburned the last day. It only rained a little bit during the third night when we were in our tent so we didn’t feel it.
Brian spent time in advance preparing meals for us to eat on the trail. All our food had to fit in a bear can (along with toiletries), so we had to be careful about what we brought. Brian wanted to have three hot meals a day, and I thought that was overkill and that we should bring more snacks and meals that didn’t need cooking.
It turned out that we were both right. It was really nice to have hot food and coffee throughout the day, but it took a fair amount of time and effort to unpack the cooking stuff and food and make and eat a meal and wash up and repack.
But, when I think back to making camp at sunset and setting up the tent, and going down to the beach and cooking dinner and eating in the dark, exhausted, I think maybe I was a little more right. Brian and I agree to disagree.
Our packs felt heavy, Brian’s was about 40 pounds and mine was about 30 pounds. We were aiming for less, but we didn’t bring that much that we wouldn’t bring if we did it again. This included over 8 pounds of camera stuff, and we were glad to have that because, damn, it was pretty.
We didn’t use rain jackets or very much first aid stuff, but that stuff we would definitely bring again. As inexperienced backpackers, we’d rather be prepared. The only thing we wouldn’t have brought would be water shoes/hiking sandals. We weren’t sure what the level of the creeks would be like and whether we would need to wade through them. We were able to rock hop across (a few had a log across that we could use as a balance beam). With our waterproof hiking boots, we stayed dry. I was really glad to have high-topped waterproof hiking boots (especially over the rocks and in the creeks), and trekking poles. We would both probably bring less clothes next time, but we might have wanted them if we got wet.
The main challenges we were warned of ahead of time were ticks, poison oak, bears, and rattlesnakes. We didn’t encounter any ticks or rattlesnakes. The black bears were definitely around, fresh tracks the third morning next to camp were evidence of that. The bear did not mess with any of our gear, and the other campers nearby did not have any problems either. The poison oak warning was no joke, it is absolutely everywhere other than the beach. Sometimes the poison oak was a huge bush, other times it was mixed in with the grass. We were able to avoid touching it for the most part, but sometimes we had to hike right through it. Brian picked up a little rash after the trip, but it could have been worse.
There was only one brief time that it got a little dicey. We were told if there is an overland trail, we should take it, to save our feet and strength for the beach sections (which was at least two thirds of the trail), only, it wasn’t always obvious when there was an overland trail we should be taking.
So, after a long stretch of overland trail, we continued on when I think we were supposed to go down to the beach. Eventually it appeared that the trail had collapsed in a land slide, but there was a small trail going up and over the washed out part, so we took that.
The trail got a bit sketchy, and crumbly right on the edge of the cliff. Even Brian got nervous, and when he gets nervous, I know we are doing something dumb. When the trail ended, there was no way down to the beach! At least, no safe way and no way I was willing to try. So we turned around, and I thought we might have to backtrack nearly a mile to the last creek, but after just a bit we saw that where it looked like it washed out and we originally went up, we we able to get down to the beach.
Backpacking was a bit uncomfortable, but I think that’s part of the fun, and it helps me appreciate the comforts of normal life. Before we left, if I had been asked what I would miss most out of the following things: a) my cell phone, b) toilets, c) going inside, or d) running water, I wouldn’t have guessed it would be e) chairs! That wasn’t even on my list of concerns. (Ok, that’s not totally true, it was probably actually b) toilets.) Fortunately, there were often driftwood logs to sit on, and when there wasn’t, I (unsuccessfully) tried to pull up the comfiest rock I could find.
Our first backpacking experience was amazing, and Brian picked a great trail when he picked the Lost Coast. It was so nice to unplug for a few days and spend so much time outdoors. The hiking was challenging, but so rewarding. It was hard not to be in good spirits the whole time!
Day 596| Mile 61,891